If you like good backstory with your beer back, settle in, because the Ear Inn is for you. The building that houses the pub and restaurant on a far western stretch of Tribeca has one of the richest histories of any place in the city. It’s kind of like a casual museum that happens to serve a great burger, a perfectly poured Guinness, and a delicious slice of old New York.
The two-story-and-change, Federal-style stack of bricks was built in 1770 for George Washington’s African-American assistant, James Brown. You’ve likely seen Brown before—in the famous painting of Washington’s oar-powered boat navigating the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War. Some historians say he’s the guy rowing near Washington’s jutting knee. Brown made a killing in the tobacco industry, which helped pay for the construction.
In the middle of the 19th century, after Brown had died, a fellow named Thomas Cook saw a way to capitalize on the Ear Inn’s proximity to water, selling home-brewed beer and house-aged whiskey to sailors stumbling in from the docks. To this day, the joint embraces a major nautical aesthetic, with battered wood oars and weathered ring buoys nailed to the walls. In fact, entering the Ear Inn is not unlike stepping into the hull of small ship, what with the low ceilings and snug tables. But let’s not get ahead of the story.
The bar’s contemporary incarnation began in the mid-1970s when the two men who still own it, Martin Sheridan and Richard Hayman, took over the lease. As the mythology goes, Sheridan and Hayman cleverly found a way to outsmart the Landmark Commission’s strict rules on new signage by turning off some of the bulbs in the neon “Bar” sign affixed to the front of the building. What was left read “Ear,” and a new business was born. The two men were smart enough to leave the text at the bottom of the sign alone: Est. 1817 A.D. (Worthwhile digression alert: Apparently Hayman first rented a room in the building for—hold on to your $8 matcha latte—all of 100 bucks per month. We know, we know.)
You don’t have to have an appetite for early American history to appreciate the Ear Inn today. Unlike other long-standing NYC establishments—McSorley’s Ale House, say, or White Horse Tavern—the unassuming Spring Street spot isn’t packed with tourists or other sauced gawkers who’ve arrived to check an address off in their guidebooks. The Ear Inn, by comparison, remains, all these years later, an un-fussed-over pub for New Yorkers who know. And for some who don’t know until a friend invites them along.
That was the case for me on a recent midweek outing. I’d asked a high school friend I don’t see nearly enough to lunch. It was only when we met at a solid wood table in the front room that he told me he’d lived one summer a block from the Ear Inn and had no idea it was there. (Deeper into the house is a larger back room; all the walls are jammed with vintage beer-promoting tins, historic documents like one large sign advising sailors not to “Tie Up at This Pier,” and photos of ships and ships and ships.)
We caught up, this old friend and I, and sipped Guinness (me), and whiskey sodas (him) and ate genuinely tasty grub—a hearty bowl of chili and a fresh Cobb salad. We talked about our misspent youths, our current dreams, our wives and kids. The waitress wandered over from time to time, checking on us with what sounded like a soft Irish accent. It was as comfortable as if we were hanging in one of our apartments.
By the end of the meal, the Ear Inn had seduced another fan. My friend would be back, he told our waitress, and more than once. He no longer lives a block away—he’s up in the West 60s now—but he knows a place that’s worth the trip when he sees it.